The Humbling of the Olive Farmers

Maurino olive tree marker

Maurino olive tree marker

by cheri sabraw

One of the images that blackens the literary sky of The Grapes of Wrath occurs before the wandering Joads even reach the “Promised Land” of California.

First, Tom Joad crushes a grasshopper on the dashboard of the truck whose driver has just picked him up. This insect, one of billions to swarm into the Midwest, takes on symbolic meaning. Soon California will be overrun with “Oakies,” migrating like locusts toward work and  survival. In Chapter Three, Steinbeck writes of grasshoppers so thick they block out the light of the sun. He was referring to  July 26, 1931, when such an event happened in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The siege visited upon the Midwestern farmer was conducted by Uber-vermin, insects whose jaws grew larger as their swarm became a living machine that could chew through a wheat field more efficiently than any man-made combine.

Those of us who do not make our living tilling the soil have no idea how hard it is to produce a natural product or any product at all. When I buy red-leaf lettuce or  peaches, and nestle  kiwis into my basket alongside organic strawberries and blueberries, never do I consider the farmer who grew them, the insects who invade them in one way or another, and the patience it takes to bring them to market.

Never did I consider these factors until last year when the olive fruit fly destroyed our olive crop for the second year in a row.

And this year too, save for about 75 pounds of assorted leccino, arbequina, maurino, and frantoio olives, our crop again fell victim to the ravages of the fly.

Frantoio olive tree marker

Frantoio olive tree marker

On Monday, my husband and I picked the lucky little olives whose insides are not being turned out by fruit fly larvae feeding on such sweet oil. We hustled as  olives must be pressed within 24 hours of harvest.

My husband then drove them to the Central Valley to be pressed.

Trucks lined up at the press in Modesto, California, and the foreman asked, “Where are your  olives?”

“Why in a bin in the trunk of my car,” replied the gentleman farmer.

I’m sure good manners and some sympathy kept the pressman from laughing out loud.

This year, our harvest might yield 13 bottles of oil. I do not intend to calculate what each bottle cost us.

My husband asked my sister Cindy, who is producing the label for the bottles of our first harvest, to include this small paragraph on the back of the label:

WARNING: THIS PRODUCT IS NOT FOR SALE. This oil was not “organically grown.” Yes, we used Roundup and some pesticides to kill weeds and some of the olive fruit flies so that we could actually make the oil.  While this product is not a GMO, we would have done so if we knew how.  Consume at your own risk.  If you are among the very happy few to have been given a bottle of this oil, it is because we thought enough of you that we were willing to share the fruits of our labor. Please enjoy in peace and harmony and among family and friends, this splendid, mild blend!

There’s always next year. We have 60 trees. Each tree should produce a gallon of oil.



About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in Growing Olives and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Humbling of the Olive Farmers

  1. Cyberquill says:

    Next year will be soon upon us. Time flies faster than fruit flies.

  2. Brighid says:

    The fruits of your labor are filled with an abiding love…

  3. Richard says:


    He was a ne’er-do-well, I know,
    A Jack-the-Lad, they say,
    I lost my heart to him one day,
    And how his charms could grow!

    Away he flew and left me there,
    More maids, no doubt, to woo,
    Oh fate! What could I do?
    Life is so cruel, love so unfair.

    I flapped from many a ranch to ranch
    With trucks parked in the fields,
    A-brim with berry yields,
    Then spied a held-out olive branch.

    A nest-box! Now this place would suit.
    It is a family home!
    – So no more need I roam –
    A baby-ward of plump sweet fruit!

    Relief and joy! My burden eased!
    My children safe to thrive.
    Next year will more arrive.
    Good people, bless you – God is pleased.

  4. wkkortas says:

    Wasn’t Luther Burbank responsible for the first GMO produce and planting? Is he on the villains list now? It’s hard to keep up.

    • Cheri says:

      Why you are right! I did my first “book report” on Luther Burbank and remember the thrill of driving up to Santa Rosa to see his garden.
      You know California is a crazy place. Notice I didn’t mention the “M” word!

    • Brighid says:

      “People have been modifying crops & livestock for millennia.
      Sometimes for size, disease resistance, animal behaviors, etc. but now that it’s done in a lab? Ooh evil..” – Nicole Mendoza

  5. shoreacres says:

    Oh, my. I’m sure you feel about those olive fruit flies the way I feel about the so-called love bug: a twice-yearly scourge along the Gulf Coast. They don’t do anything particularly nasty, like transmit disease or consume crops, they just are. And they love the smell of fresh varnish. Open a can, and they arrive by the thousands.

    I’ve never seen a plague of grasshoppers like that, but I do remember a certain vacation. My parents and I were in El Dorado, Arkansas, when the crickets arrived. They kept us in our motel room for 24 hours. My mother refused to go out. They came in under the door, through the windows. There were so many that cars skidding on their smooshed carcasses skidded into one another. Oh, it was terrible.

    But you have your oil. May next year be better! (And yes, I love that label.)

  6. Cheri says:

    I know nothing about a love bug but I’d like to know more. My Chinese friends tell me crickets are a sign of good luck. I found one in our family room the other night. My intention was to catch it and let it out. Unfortunately the attentive eyes of one yellow Labrador sensed the movement and before I could stop her….well…you are a new reader of this blog but old readers will remember Dinah Ate a Rat. Disgusting.

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